ELLERY QUEEN MYSTERIES: Episodes Five and Six
We are on a roll and cooking with gas and every other mixed metaphor with two fine episodes. The first ranks as one of the top puzzles in the series and the second has one of the best casts. Plus, Frank Flannagan and Simon Brimmer continue to add spice to the Queens’ casefile.
EPISODE FIVE: THE ADVENTURE OF THE 12TH FLOOR EXPRESS
(written by David H. Balkan and Alan Folsom; original airdate 10/9/75)
The only major female suspect is played by the patrician Dina Merrill, heiress to the fortune of her famous stockbroker father, E.F. Hutton and her mom, Marjorie Merriwether Post (herself an heiress to the Post Cereals monolith). In a humorous moment, she gave herself the professional name “Merrill” after another stockbroker, Charles E. Merrill, co-founder of Merrill Lynch. Dina Merrill was supposedly poised to succeed Grace Kelly as the elegant movie star; what happened instead was that she enjoyed a long career in movies and television. (I’m a big fan!) The only other major female player here is another favorite of mine: Ruth McDevitt. So many women made a splash on stage and essayed a variety of character roles in film before appearing countless times as a dithery old lady on the small screen, folks like Helen Hayes, Josephine Hull, and Marion Lorne. McDevitt was one of my favorites. You can see her at the beginning of Hitchcock’s The Birds playing Mrs. MacGruder, the bird shop owner; I’d like to think her birdies protected her at the end . . .
George Furth performed as one of the last of the “nervous Nellies” in movies and TV, but his biggest claim to fame was his work as a playwright and librettist, including two musicals with Stephen Sondheim (Company, Merrily We Roll Along.) Paul Stewart had a lengthy career that spanned movies, TV, radio and the stage, most prominently as a member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre. (He plays the slimy valet Raymond in Citizen Kane.) He directed quite a bit for early TV as well, including episodes of Peter Gunn, Hawaiian Eye and The Twilight Zone. Pat Harrington was another of those actors you saw all over TV, in sitcoms (he played Schneider, the super, on One Day at a Time), late night, and game shows.
Newspaper publisher Henry Manners (Tyler McVey) arrives to work one morning and, as is his custom, greets the elevator starter Fred Durmhofer (John Finnegan) who grabs the express elevator and pushes the button for the 12th floor. When the elevator arrives, the receptionist at her desk sees an empty elevator. The door closes and stops first at the 6thfloor and then the 5th where Manners is spotted on the floor, shot to death. Ellery must help his father figure out not only who killed Henry Manners, but how they got into the elevator to do so and how Manners seems to have disappeared and then reappeared.
This is the second of back-to-back stories featuring Ken Swofford as Flannagan, whose presence is less prominent than last time and more slapstick, but that doesn’t hurt things at all. What we’ve got here is an actual impossible crime mystery, and while the matter of Manners’ disappearance from the elevator should be immediately apparent to the most casual viewer, the method of murder is top-notch. And there’s even more here to make this a fine episode. The script by Balkan and Folsom is quite clever, both in the intricacies of the characters’ motivations and in the use of humor. At one point the young, caustic obituary writer says to Ellery, “Do you have any idea what it’s like to write about dead people every day?”, to which Mr. Queen responds, “Well, sort of, yeah.”
Unlike previous episodes where everyone wants the victim’s money or everyone hates the victim’s bullying ways, the motives and relationships are richer and more complicated. The victim’s sister feels she can run the family paper better (and she can!), the managing editor (Stewart) was about to be forced into retirement due to age (and now he can stay!), and the muckraking columnist (Harrington) who sees a Commie around every corner has gotten the paper sued for making up an accusation against a famous financier. As a result, both he and the newpaper’s attorney (Furth) were about to be fired . . . if Henry Manners were alive!
This goes to show that when the program keeps Ellery’s bumbling to a minimum and provides a case that inspires his great mind to fire on all cylinders, the result is a great episode, and we have a very good one here. True, once again we have a dying message where it’s hard to figure that this is what the victim would be thinking about as the life saps out of him, particularly as timing is everything here. But that’s a small niggling point: the message actually serves to take a bizarre series of events and reduce them to something simple – the mark of a fine mystery.
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EPISODE ONE: THE ADVENTURE OF MISS AGGIE’S FAREWELL
(written by Peter S. Fischer; story by Levinson, Link and Fischer; original airdate 10/16/75)
One could easily write a lengthy post just on the career of Eve Arden and another on that of Betty White. Arden immediately perfected the role of the wisecracking pal in one of her earliest performances in Stage Door, got nominated for an Oscar doing the same thing in Mildred Pierce, and captured the heart of America on the radio, TV and the big screen playing high school teacher Connie Brooks on Our Miss Brooks. You could say she inspired me to be a teacher or taught me the art of sarcasm. I’m sure there’s a grain of truth in both statements.
The dearly lamented Bette White deserves the accolade of Queen of Television as one of its first stars who, over the course of seventy years, reinvented her persona to suit whatever role she was handed. From wholesome housewife Elizabeth in Life with Elizabeth, to saccharine slut Sue Ann Nivens in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, from The Golden Girls to Hot in Cleveland, Miss White was the person you looked for in any ensemble. She was sharp (game show panelist supreme), self-effacing yet confident, and compassionate to animals. She nearly made it to 100. She will be missed.
Nan Martin did make some films, most notably playing Freddie Krueger’s mother in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, but she was another TV actress who appeared on dozens of series in varied roles.
John McGiver is one of my favorite character actors, partly because he was a high school English teacher who acted on the side and then, at the age of 42, took the plunge into a successful career on stage and screen. A devoted father of ten, he appeared in every TV show ever made (my estimate) and had memorable roles in many films, including The Manchurian Candidate and Midnight Cowboy. Every Baby Boomer would recognize his jowly face and clipped tones even if they couldn’t say his name.
Bert Parks had a long career spanning radio and television, more as a singer and host than as an actor. He emceed game shows and anthology programs. What I remember him for is hosting The Miss America Pageant, where he would sing, “Theeeeere she iiiiis, Miiiiiiss Ameeeeeeericaaaaaaaa!” And Paul Shenar is significant to me because he was one of the founding actors of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) where I saw him perform many times. He played Alejandro Sosa, the main antagonist in De Palma’s Scarface. He was lovers with Jeremy Brett, TV’s Sherlock Holmes, and died tragically of complications due to AIDS at too young an age.
Miss Aggie, the kindly high school principal and leading character of popular radio soap opera Everyday’s Journey, is played by conniving harpy Vera Bethune (Arden), who has carried on affairs with both her leading man, Lawrence Denver (Parks) and her announcer, Wendell Warren (Shenar). Both men are in the studio taping the latest episode, along with the newly hired actress Anita Leslie (Penelope Windust) and lovelorn organist Mary Lou Gumm (Beatrice Colen) when Vera pours herself a glass of water, drinks, and falls to the floor – poisoned.
Vera is rushed to the hospital where she survives the attempt on her life and meets Ellery Queen. That evening, someone sneaks into the hospital and shoots Miss Aggie to death. A bitter Inspector Queen feels responsible because he heeded Vera’s request for no guards at the door, and Ellery vows to help his dad find the killer. Meanwhile, radio star Simon Brimmer is competing to solve the case in order to impress Mr. Pearl, owner of Vitacreme, the sponsor for both programs, who intends to pull funding from Brimmer’s program.
This is one of my favorite episodes as far as the milieu of radio soap opera and the wonderful cast go, coupled with the higher personal stakes both the Queens and Mr. Brimmer feel in catching the killer, which make this a more compelling tale. Unfortunately, in the end it devolves into another plot that hinges almost completely on a dying message, and while this time it sort of makes sense as to why Vera chose this form of communication (for once a victim did meet Ellery before the end and appreciates how his mind works), the meaning is so obvious that it shatters the suspense before the reveal.
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